Nine people have been found dead. Entire neighborhoods are leveled. The business district is destroyed. In one day, this Sierra Nevada foothill town of 27,000 founded in the 1800s was largely incinerated by flames that moved so fast there was nothing firefighters could do.
The blaze that started Thursday outside the hilly town of Paradise has grown to 156 square miles (404 square kilometers) and destroyed more than 6,700 buildings, almost all of them homes, making it California’s most destructive wildfire since record-keeping began. But crews have made gains and the fire is partially contained, officials said Saturday.
The dead were found inside their cars and outside vehicles or homes after a desperate evacuation that Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea called “the worst-case scenario.” Their identities were not yet known.
“It is what we feared for a long time,” Honea said, noting that there was no time to go door to door.
With fires also burning in Southern California , state officials put the total number of people forced from their homes at more than 200,000. Evacuation orders included the entire city of Malibu, which is home to 13,000, among them some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration providing federal funding for Butte, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. He later threatened to withhold federal payments to California, claiming its forest management is “so poor.”
Trump tweeted Saturday that “there is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly fires in California.” Trump said “billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
Pacific Gas & Electric Co. reported to state regulators that it experienced a problem on an electrical transmission line near the site of the fire minutes before it broke out. The company had canceled plans to cut off power to the area because of high winds before flames ignited.
The fire in Paradise, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, was still burning out of control.
A thick, yellow haze hung in the air, giving the appearance of twilight in the middle of the day. Some of the “majestic oaks” the town touts on its website still have fires burning in their trunks. Thick wooden posts holding up guardrails continued to burn.
An evacuation order Thursday set off a desperate exodus, with frantic motorists getting stuck in gridlocked traffic. Many abandoned their vehicles to flee on foot as the flames bore down on all sides.
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“The fire was so close I could feel it in my car through rolled-up windows,” said Rita Miller, who fled Paradise with her mother, who is disabled.
The town, in a canyon between two ridges, was a popular retirement community, raising concerns about elderly and immobile residents who have been reported missing.
On the outskirts of town, Patrick Knuthson, a fourth-generation resident, said only two of the 22 homes that once stood on his street are still there — his and a neighbor’s.
“The fire burned from one house, to the next house, to the next house until they were pretty much all gone,” Knuthson said.
He and neighbors used a backhoe to create a fire line, determined not to lose his house again.
“I lost my home in 2008, and it’s something you can’t really describe until you go through it,” said Knuthson, who battled flames 8 feet high or taller as strong winds whipped hot embers around him.
He worked so long in the flames and smoke that he needed to use oxygen Thursday night at his home, but he refused to leave. On Friday, Knuthson was covered from head to toe in black soot. His tiny town will never be the same, he said. The bucolic country landscape dotted with bay and oak trees will take years to recover.
In the town’s central shopping area, there was little left but rubble.
St. Nicolas Church still stands, a rare exception. The nearby New Life church is gone. An unblemished Burger King sign rises above a pile of charred rubble. Only blackened debris remains behind the Happy Garden Chinese Restaurant sign touting its sushi. City Hall survived. But the Moose Lodge and Chamber of Commerce buildings didn’t.
The town’s 100-bed hospital is still standing, but two of its smaller buildings, including an outpatient clinic, are flattened.
On the outskirts of Paradise, Krystin Harvey lost her mobile home. She described a town rich with historical charm, until a day ago.
“It was an old country town. It had the old buildings lined up along the walkway,” she said. “Almost all businesses were locally owned and included an assortment of antique shops, thrift stores, small restaurants, two bars and lots of churches.”
Harvey wondered if the town’s traditions would survive. The town was famous for the discovery of a 54-pound gold nugget in the 1800s, which eventually prompted a festival known as Gold Nugget Days. The highlight of the festival is a parade that features a Gold Nugget Queen.
“My daughter’s going out for the gold nugget queen this year,” said Harvey, then she paused. “Well, it’s been going for 100 years, but we don’t know — there’s no town now.”
Drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and home construction deeper into forests have led to more destructive wildfire seasons that have been starting earlier and lasting longer.
California emerged from a five-year drought last year but has had a very dry 2018, and much of the northern two-thirds of the state, including where the fire is burning, is abnormally dry, according to a U.S. government analysis.
Just 100 miles (160 kilometers) north, the Carr Fire near Redding was the sixth most destructive wildfire in California history and one of the earliest. It killed eight people in July and August, burned about 1,100 homes and consumed 358 square miles (927 square kilometers) before it was contained.
Paradise town council member Melissa Schuster lost her 16-acre Chapelle de L’Artiste retreat, a posh property with a chapel, pond and pool. But she was clinging to hope.
“It’s Paradise,” she said. “It’s always been Paradise, and we will bring it back.”